Microsoft commits to updating Windows 11 once per year, and also all the time

A PC with Windows 11.
Enlarge / A PC with Windows 11.

When we reviewed Windows 11 last fall, one of our biggest concerns was that we’d have to wait until fall 2022 to see any changes or improvements to the new — and sometimes crude — UI:

As we continue through this review, we will identify a considerable list of early Windows 11 issues. We can probably assume that bugs will be fixed quickly. But when it comes to major changes – like restoring lost functionality in the taskbar and taskbar, or further modernizing still untouched parts of the user interface – do we have to wait a year for that to happen?

Any design that changes as much as Windows 11’s will benefit from a series of small, rapid updates and tweaks to address the most common ailments and vulnerabilities. I hope Microsoft gives itself space to make these types of changes without having to wait until this time next year to implement them.

Almost a year later, it’s become abundantly clear that Microsoft isn’t holding back on changes and new apps for the operating system’s annual feature update. A notable supplement was released back in February, along with a commitment to “continuous innovation”. Other, smaller updates before and after (not to mention the constantly updated Microsoft Edge browser) have also underscored Microsoft’s commitment to pushing out new Windows features whenever they’re ready.

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There has been speculation that Microsoft may be planning another major overhaul of the Windows update model, moving away from annual updates being replaced by quarterly feature drops, reportedly called “Moments” internally. These would be interrupted by major Windows version updates about every three years. As part of the PR surrounding the Windows 11 2022 Update (aka Windows 11 22H2), the company has made it clear that none of this is happening.

“Windows 11 will continue to have an annual feature update cadence, released in the second half of the calendar year that marks the beginning of the support lifecycle,” writes Microsoft VP John Cable, “with 24 months of support for the Home and Windows 10 Pro editions and 36 months of support for Enterprise and Education editions.” These updates come with their own new features and changes, as does the 2022 update, but you must also have the latest annual update installed to continue receiving additional feature updates via Get Windows Update and the Microsoft Store.

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As for the Windows 12 rumors, Microsoft Ars simply said that it “has no plans to share them today”. This attitude gives the company plenty of leeway to change its plans tomorrow or every day after. But we can safely say that a new numbered version of Windows will not appear in the near future.

For minor changes that aren’t rolled out as part of an annual feature update or via a Microsoft Store update, Microsoft uses something called a controlled feature rollout (CFR) to test features with a subset of Windows users, rather than rolling them out to everyone at once.

If you check Windows Update regularly (and of course you do, right?), you might occasionally see optional monthly preview updates that don’t install unless you trigger them manually. New features are rolled out first to people who install these optional updates. The following month, when this update is no longer a “preview” and becomes generally available, it will be pushed to all Windows 11 PCs (except for bugs discovered during the preview period that stop the show). For example, the optional October update preview adds tabs to Windows File Explorer, and then the non-optional November update brings that feature to anyone who doesn’t have the preview installed.

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There’s also a small change for Microsoft’s enterprise and education customers, risk-averse audiences who care more about keeping their systems patched and up and running than they care about minor tweaks to the Start menu and taskbar. By default, the new features are turned off in an annual update for the Enterprise and Education editions of Windows. Administrators can manually enable these changes through Group Policy or mobile device management software if needed. But otherwise, the features will not be enabled by default until the next annual Windows update shipments. As such, features included in the 22H2 release of Windows 11 will not be enabled by default in the Education or Enterprise editions of Windows until a hypothetical 23H2 update. Features in the 23H2 update will be enabled by default in a hypothetical 24H2 update; etc.

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